Do-it-yourself biology (DIY biology, DIY bio) is a growing biotechnological social movement in which individuals, communities, and small organizations study biology and life science using the same methods as traditional research institutions. DIY biology is primarily undertaken by individuals with extensive research training from academia or corporations, who then mentor and oversee other DIY biologists with little or no formal training. This may be done as a hobby, as a not-for-profit endeavor for community learning and open-science innovation, or for profit, to start a business.
Biohacking entered the San Francisco programmer and maker communities as early as 2005, through simple demonstrations of basic experiments. As DIYbio experiments became the focus of SuperHappyDevHouse hackers, the hobby gained additional momentum.
In 2005 Rob Carlson wrote in an article in Wired: "The era of garage biology is upon us. Want to participate? Take a moment to buy yourself a lab on eBay." He then set up a garage lab the same year, working on a project he had previously worked at the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California.
In 2008, the DIYbio organization was founded by Jason Bobe and Mackenzie Cowell and its first meeting held.
In 2010, Genspace opened the first community biology lab, Ten months later it was followed by BioCurious, and Victoria Makerspace. Many other labs and organizations followed, including but not limited to Counter Culture Labs in Oakland, CA, Baltimore Underground Science Space in Baltimore, MD, TheLab in Los Angeles, CA and Denver Biolabs in Denver, CO.
The DIYbio movement seeks to revise the notion that one must be an academic with an advanced degree to make any significant contribution to the biology community. It allows large numbers of small organizations and individuals to participate in research and development, with spreading knowledge a higher priority than turning profits.
The motivations for DIY biology include (but aren't limited to) lowered costs, entertainment, medicine, biohacking, life extension, and education. Recent work combining open-source hardware of microcontrollers like the Arduino and RepRap 3-D printers, very low-cost scientific instruments have been developed.
Community laboratory space
Many organizations maintain a laboratory akin to a wet-lab makerspace, providing equipment and supplies for members. Many organizations also run classes and provide training. For a fee (usually between $50 and $100), members can join some spaces and do experiments on their own.
Open source equipment
The DIY biology movement attempts to make available the tools and resources necessary for anyone, including non-professionals, to conduct biological engineering. One of the first pieces of open source laboratory equipment developed was the Dremelfuge by Irish biohacker Cathal Garvey, which uses a 3D printed tube holder attached to a Dremel rotary tool to spin tubes at high speeds, replacing often expensive centrifuges. Many other devices like PCR machines have been recreated extensively. In recent times, more complex devices have been created such as the OpenDrop digital microfluidics platform and the DIY NanoDrop both developed by GaudiLabs. Opentrons makes open-source, affordable lab robots, and got its start as a DIY biology collaboration at Genspace.
Most advocacy in biohacking is about the safety, accessibility and future legality of experimentation. Todd Kuiken of the Woodrow Wilson Center proposes that through safety and self-governance, DIY biologists won't be in need of regulation. However, Josiah Zayner has proposed that safety is inherent in biohacking and that accessibility should be the foremost concern as there is large underrepresentation of social and ethnic minorities in biohacking.
Bioinformatics is another popular target for do-it-yourself biology research. As in other fields, many programming languages can be used in DIY biology, but most of the languages that are used are those with large bioinformatics libraries.
Genetic Engineers are a subculture of biohackers as one of the most accessible forms of biohacking is through engineering microorganisms or plants. Experiments can range from using plasmids to fluorescent bacteria, controlling gene expression using light in bacteria, even using CRISPR to engineer the genome of bacteria or yeast.
Restricted access to medical care and medicine has pushed biohackers to start experimenting in medically related fields. The Open Insulin project aims to make the recombinant protein insulin more accessible by creating an open source protocol for expression and purification. Other experiments that have involved medical treatments include a whole body microbiome transplant and the creation of open source artificial pancreases for diabetics.
Self-described "transgenic artist" Eduardo Kac uses biotechnology and genetics to create works that both utilise and critique scientific techniques. In one of his works, Alba, Kac collaborated with a French laboratory to procure a green-fluorescent rabbit: a rabbit implanted with a green fluorescent protein gene from a type of jellyfish in order for the rabbit to fluoresce green under ultraviolet light. The members of the Critical Art Ensemble have written books and staged multimedia performance interventions around this issue, including The Flesh Machine (focusing on in vitro fertilisation, surveillance of the body, and liberal eugenics) and Cult of the New Eve (In order to analyze how, in their words, "Science is the institution of authority regarding the production of knowledge, and tends to replace this particular social function of conventional Christianity in the west").
Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an information artist and biohacker who uses genomic DNA left behind by people as a starting point for creating lifelike, computer-generated, 3-D portraits.
Criticism and concerns
Biohacking experiences many of the same criticisms as synthetic biology and genetic engineering already receive, plus other concerns relating to the distributed and non-institutional nature of the work, involving potential hazards with lack of oversight by professionals or governments. Concerns about biohackers creating pathogens in unmonitored garage laboratories led the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to begin sending its representatives to DIYbio conferences in 2009. The arrest and prosecution of some members for their work with harmless microbes, such as artivist Steve Kurtz, has been denounced as political repression by critics who argue the U.S. government has used post-9/11 anti-terrorism powers to intimidate artists and others who use their art to criticize society.
Existing regulations are not specific to this field, so that the possibility of pathological organisms being created and released unintentionally or intentionally by biohackers has become a matter of concern, for example, in the spirit of the re-creation of the 1917 flu virus by Armed Forces Institute of Pathology researchers in 2005. In the US the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate has worked with the American Association for the Advancement of Science's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to convene a series of meetings to discuss biosecurity, which have included discussions of amateur biologists and ways to manage the risks to society it poses.:8.16 At the National Institutes of Health, National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity leads efforts to educate the public on "dual use research of concern", for example with websites like "Science Safety Security". In 2011, DIYbio organized conferences to attempt to create codes of ethics for biohackers.
Pat Mooney, executive director of ETC Group, is a critic of biohacking who argues that—using a laptop computer, published gene sequence information, and mail-order synthetic DNA—just about anyone has the potential to construct genes or entire genomes from scratch (including those of the lethal pathogens) in the near-future. A 2007 ETC Group report warns that the danger of this development is not just bio-terror, but "bio-error".
While no DIYbio project to date has involved harmful agents, the fear remains in the minds of both regulators and laypersons. However, it is often pointed out that DIYbio is at too early a stage to consider such advanced projects feasible, as few successful transformative genetics projects have been undertaken yet. It is also worth noting that, while an individual could conceivably do harm with sufficient skill and intent, there exist biology labs throughout the world with greater access to the technology, skill and funding to accomplish a bioweapons project.
While detractors argue that do-it-yourself biologists need some sort of supervision, enthusiasts argue that uniform supervision is impossible and the best way to prevent accidents or malevolence is to encourage a culture of transparency, where, in essence, do-it-yourself biologists would be peer reviewed by other biohackers. Enthusiasts argue that fear of potential hazards should be met with increased research and education rather than closing the door on the profound positive impacts that distributed biological technology will have on human health, the environment, and the standard of living around the world. Due to the lack of precedent regarding such a business model, the DIYbio founders see this as an opportunity to be innovators in regulatory and safety policy.
Groups and organizations
- Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS) in Baltimore
- Biocurious in Sunnyvale, CA
- Biofoundry in Sydney
- Biospacesg in Singapore
- Bricobio, in Montreal.
- Capital Area BioSpace (CABS), in D.C, Metro area
- Charlottesville Open Bio Lab, Charlottesville, VA
- Denver Biolabs in Denver, Colorado (United States).
- Counter Culture Labs, in Oakland, California (United States).
- Hackuarium in Renens (Switzerland)
- La Paillasse, Paris (France).
- London Biohackspace London (United Kingdom).
- Victoria Makerspace in Victoria, British Columbia
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- DIYbio.org, a community for DIY biology beginners